Star Wars legends: ESO Network chats with author Timothy Zahn

He may not be the “Chosen One,” use Force powers, or wield a lightsaber, but Timothy Zahn is most definitely still a Star Wars legend.

Back in the early ’90s, the author played a key role in the establishment of the Star Wars series of novels called the “Expanded Universe” — now known as “Star Wars Legends” — and created such well-loved characters as ex-Imperial agent Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn. Zahn recently started writing for the new Star Wars canon with the book “Thrawn” and its sequel, “Thrawn: Alliances.” “Alliances” was released in July 2018 and features two separate timelines: one set in the Clone Wars era with Thrawn/Anakin teaming up on a mission, and one set in the original trilogy era with the Emperor deploying Thrawn/Vader to the unknown regions of the galaxy.

At Dragon Con 2018, ESO Network reporters Mary Ogle and Ashley Pauls had a chance to sit down with Zahn and chat about Star Wars, the art of writing, and just who might make a good Thrawn if the character ever appears in one of the live action films. Read an excerpt from our interview below, and listen to the full interview on Earth Station One Podcast Episode 437:

ESO: What has been your experience getting to work for the new canon? You kind of have an interesting perspective — you wrote for the old Expanded Universe and now you’re writing for the new. What’s that transition been like and what have you enjoyed about that?

Zahn: Just as a side note, it’s canon and Legends. They’re trying to train us to [use], not “new canon,” not EU — canon, Legends.

It’s tricky to get used to that.

It is very much, and I’m told [Lucasfilm’s] Story Group occasionally goofs up on that as well. (laughter) They’re trying to get us to talk that way. The big difference with writing in canon is that there’s so much less established at the moment. There were over 200 books in Legends that you had to work around and make sure you weren’t double-booking characters, having them be two places at the same time. Because we’ve just started up the last few years with canon, there aren’t nearly as many diggings in the field, as it were, finding/mining the ore and all that. So it’s easier to find a place and a time where you can put your story. Story Group also is much more efficient than the old days, when we were all trying to keep track of things ourselves, because they have a finger on the pulse of everything that’s being done at Lucasfilm.

I don’t have to worry about continuity or stepping on somebody else’s toes, especially somebody I don’t even know what they’re working on. Story Group will pick up on all of that. So there’s a freedom to, okay, I will put TIE fighters in this era; if there’s something wrong with that, Story Group will pick up on that and will get it changed so I don’t have to worry nearly as much about what I’m doing in continuity.

Aside from that it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. We’ve got the extra layer of Disney on top, but I never see that.

So do you find that freeing or constraining?

Oh, pretty much freeing, because again I don’t have to worry about things. With my first canon book, “Thrawn,” somebody asked me after it was published if Tarkin was a Grand Moff at the time I’ve got him in that story, and I can unequivocally say yes because Story Group didn’t bat an eye on that. If that was the wrong rank for him at that time, they would have caught it. The fact they didn’t change it means yes, that is correct.

In “Thrawn: Alliances,” Anakin and later Darth Vader team up with Thrawn. Was that an idea that you came up with, or was that something Lucasfilm approached you to say, we’d like this book with these two characters together?

Well, I left the hook in the “Thrawn” novel of Anakin and Thrawn having met, and so when it came time to pitch another book that’s what I suggested, “I’d like to do the Thrawn and Anakin [story].” They wanted a Thrawn/Vader. So we compromised and did both.

Is it usually you approaching them or do they approach you?

Typically, I mean almost always in the past, it has been them approaching me. I think with “Thrawn: Alliances,” it was more or less a general yes, we’re going to do a second book because the first one has done so well. Clearly the audience is out there for Thrawn; what else can we do?

One of the things that was interesting in reading “Thrawn: Alliances” is that Vader/Anakin and Thrawn have such different perspectives and means of responding to situations. What was it like digging into both those two characters and then contrasting the way they approach the world?

One of the fun things about adding new characters to the Star Wars universe is seeing how other established characters interact with them. And you’ve got the contrast with Vader, who’s been sent out on a mission with Thrawn, and Anakin, who has more or less been thrown into the situation with Thrawn, not exactly of his own choosing or of his own volition. In that one, Anakin and Thrawn are largely reacting to other things rather than being proactive; they’re having to react to what the enemy throws at them.

You also have to be careful that Vader is not stupid; Vader is very smart, Anakin is smart, they’re both tactically knowledgeable, you know good pilots, etc. So you have to balance, it’s not just a “Thrawn is the smart one, Vader is the powerful one.” You do have to change off back and forth. And you also have to be aware that Vader, if he is displeased with somebody, may just choke him. To balance that is [the idea] that the Emperor still has use of Thrawn, and Vader’s knowledge that he’s seen this guy in action before and he knows he can deliver. So when Thrawn says, trust me, a lesser person might find themselves kind of floating off the floor; Vader will be a little more patient with Thrawn because “I’ve seen he can deliver, so let’s watch and see what happens.” I did get a couple of concerns from some of the people at Lucasfilm about that. So I added in bits of okay, Vader is not only being constrained by the Emperor’s will but he’s also curious. I can see Vader and Anakin having a certain amount of curiosity: “All right, let’s see how this plays out…I can always choke him later.”

It’s been really cool to see Thrawn come into the “Rebels” TV show; would you ever like to see a live action Thrawn? And if so, if you could cast anybody, who would you like to see in that role?

People ask me that one all the time; the problem is that I see characters in terms of attitude and personality, not necessarily face or voice. I have heard several suggestions that I think I could easily go with. One is Benedict Cumberbatch. Second would be Jason Isaacs from Harry Potter and so many other things. Lars Mikkelsen who does the voice on “Rebels” is an accomplished actor in his own right; he could certainly play the character. And I think I lean a little towards Jeremy Irons. He could pull it off. But again, any actor who could capture the presence, the global awareness of the character, the calm demeanor. The makeup and the contact lenses are easy. It’s the pulling off the attitude.

Would I like to see him in a live action? If they did him right. I do not want to see him messed up by somebody who didn’t understand the character. The “Rebels” team understood him very well, and they knew how to write for him.

Do you have a favorite fan encounter that stands out to you? Or maybe it’s difficult to pick one.

I think what mostly jumps out at me with fan encounters is, I’m always grateful people like the books, of course. I mean, that’s my job to entertain, and to give them their money’s and time’s worth. But there’s an extra bonus when someone says “this book helped me through a really bad time in my life.” Or, you know, “this book taught me reading could be fun. I never read a book for fun until this one. Now, I read all the time.” Or “this book helped me through my deployment in Iraq,” or something like that. I’m writing to entertain, but I’m affecting people’s lives, some people’s lives much deeper than I ever anticipated. And that’s just a bonus.

I had one woman last convention who told me she was autistic and had a problem with not filtering out the truth from what people wanted to hear and got in trouble. And she really understood and felt Thrawn was like her, that he doesn’t understand why people don’t want to hear the truth. And she said, this is the first fictional character she’d read who she can identify with. Not at all anything I would have ever anticipated. But she grabbed onto him as somebody that “I understand him. He’s like me in many ways, and that makes me feel better.” So just things like that. No way to anticipate that — I’m just an old country entertainer, but it’s affecting some people in very good ways.

Is writing something you always wanted to do?

Oh no, I was on track getting a doctorate in physics, and saw bad TV shows [and thought], “I can write better than that.” Wrote a story that wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed it, started as a hobby for a couple of years. My adviser died of a heart attack, left me with a project that was never going to work; it was fundamentally flawed. So decided, after a semester of working with a new professor and a new project, you know, I’m having more fun writing, I’ve sold two stories — let’s give this a shot.

I really appreciated what you said in the Star Wars authors panel at Dragon Con. I liked how you commented on the Legends stories — they may not be canon technically, but they’re still out there. They’re still enjoyable. So it’s still very much a part of the fandom and the overall fabric of the Star Wars universe.

You’re sitting around the campfire, Coruscant’s a long way away, the HoloNet breaks down a lot. You don’t get much news out here. And while you’re working on your s’mores, somebody says “hey, have you guys ever heard the story of Luke Skywalker and Grand Admiral Thrawn?” And by the time you’re in your sleeping bag, you don’t know if that was true or not, but it was fun. You enjoyed it. And that’s what a legend is, and maybe based somewhat in truth, it may not be. There probably was somebody that Robin Hood was based on; probably nothing like what we’ve come up with in stories from the 1600s or maybe earlier, but he’s an intriguing character. And you’ve got all these legends: Robin Hood, King Arthur, William Tell. Every culture has got their own legends and they’re still fun to read.

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